Foreword to Veatch's Rational Man

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Foreword to the Liberty Fund edition of Rational Man by Henry B. Veatch

by Douglas B. Rasmussen

Rational Man is a modern interpretation of Aristotle’s ethics. It first appeared in 1962. Its author, Henry Babcock Veatch, was one of the leading neo-Aristotelians of the twentieth century. Veatch was born in Evansville, Indiana in 1911. He was educated at Harvard from which he received his doctorate in 1936. His mentor at Harvard was John Wild, and he was influenced by such neo-Thomists as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. He taught twenty-eight years at Indiana University, eight years at Northwestern University, and more than ten years at Georgetown University. Veatch was a prolific writer, outstanding teacher, skillful debater, and a perceptive philosopher. He was at different times president of both the American Philosophical Association (Western Division) and the American Catholic Philosophical Association. To those who knew him he was a man of energy, good humor, and graciousness. Most of all he was a gentleman. He retired in 1983, but was philosophically active throughout his retirement years. He died in 1999.

Veatch was an Aristotelian through and through, but anyone familiar with his work would also be familiar with the latest contemporary issues. Veatch was well known for championing his Aristotelianism against contemporary philosophical fashions. Indeed, Rational Man is but one of a series of works in which Veatch challenged many of the prevailing beliefs of his time, especially those of Anglo-American philosophy. Those interested in Veatch’s other major books and articles may wish to consult the annotated bibliography at the end of this essay. These works reveal a thinker with an eye for what is philosophically crucial and a philosopher who was concerned with the truth of things—not the latest intellectual styles.

Rational Man is, however, the most distinctive of all of Veatch’s works; for it accomplishes what is nearly impossible to achieve. It engages both the expert and the beginner. Both can read and profit from this work. There is real scholarship and philosophical sophistication in these pages, but it is neither dry nor heavy handed. Veatch’s philosophical learning does not get in the way of the message. The arguments are crisp, and the reading is lively with numerous examples, particularly from literature.

Veatch’s arguments in Rational Man were not only in conflict with the dominant views of his time, but they remain in conflict with many of those today. His arguments sought to establish three claims: (1) ethical knowledge is possible; (2) ethical knowledge is grounded in human nature; and (3) the purpose of ethics is to show the individual human being how to self-perfect. Moreover, these claims were to be defended without any appeal to revelation, but “solely on what used to be known as the natural light of reason.” Veatch thus was an advocate of what is commonly called “natural law” theory, but such a theory was for Veatch not to be confused with what is today called “divine command theory.” Accordingly, ethics is based on the requirements for self-perfection, not merely on what is commanded by a Deity. This does not mean, however, that ethics and religion were necessarily incompatible for Veatch; rather it means only that Rational Man is simply a book “on ethics without religion.”

Veatch’s use of the words “self-perfection, “perfection,” and “perfect” may not be familiar to some contemporary readers. “Perfect” comes from the Latin “perfectus” and its Greek counterpart “teleios.” Perfectus implies that a thing is completed or finished and thus involves the idea of a thing having a nature which is its end (telos) or function (ergon). Thus, it should be clear that when Veatch spoke of how to “perfect” oneself he did not mean that one should become God-like, immune to degeneration, or incapable of harm. Rather, it is to fulfill those potentialities and capacities that make one human.

Also, Veatch’s understanding of natural law should be situated. Perhaps the best way to do this is to consider one of Veatch’s favorite citations. It is from the Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker. It is his characterization of law in general from his classic, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

That which doth assign unto each thing the kind, that which doth moderate the force and power, that which doth appoint the form and measure of working, the same we term a Law.

For Veatch, the concept of “natural law” is based on the idea that a thing’s nature is not only that in virtue of which a thing acts or behaves the way it does, but it is also the standard or measure in terms of which we judge whether the thing’s action or behavior is all that it might or could have been. Indeed, it is the standard in terms of which we judge whether it is functioning well or appropriately. In other words, not only do we think that things, especially human beings, have a nature that governs how they act or behave but that the fulfillment or perfection of their nature is their end or function.

Now we commonly think of artifacts as having a proper function. For example, the proper function of a knife is to cut. But to claim that an entity has a natural function is to claim that an entity has a proper function because of what it is, not as the result of its being designed by someone for a certain activity. “Proper” means here essential to the entity. Thus, an entity that fulfills its proper function is an entity that functions well or excellently—indeed, as the ancients Greeks would say, with arête, which was their term for virtue. However, the claim that an entity has a natural function does not stop here. It rests on the further claim that an entity has an end in view of what it is. Thus, the natural function of a thing is determined in terms of its natural end. “End” means in this context that-for-the-sake-of-which, and it does not necessarily mean “conscious purpose.” Natural law ethics is for Veatch ultimately a natural end ethics.

Yet, many people hold that believing in natural ends or functions is beyond the philosophical, as well as scientific, pale. Teleology is out of date in this scientific day and age. Veatch argued, however, that one cannot infer that there are absolutely no natural ends simply because contemporary scientific methodology does not have a place for them. Further, he argued that natural ends are not easily eliminated. As is illustrated throughout Rational Man, they are part of our ordinary, common sense, understanding of the process of change. Additionally, Veatch came to believe later in his career that the new developments in contemporary biological and evolutionary theory pointed to the idea that living things possess an irreducible potential for their mature state that cannot be explained simply by appealing to chemistry and physics. In other words, contemporary biology supports the idea of natural functions or ends for living things, and evolutionary theory need only be seen as in conflict with an anthropomorphic conception of teleology.

Regardless of how natural teleology might be defended, Veatch held that there are natural ends. There are at least some ways of being that are inherently valuable or good—specifically, those that constitute the perfection of a living thing’s nature—and when such ways of being are actualized through choice, they are choice-worthy and the basis for ethics. In the language of his day, Veatch held that not all facts are value-free, and, as he argued in the chapter entitled “But What If God Is Dead” of Rational Man, goodness is, pace G.E. Moore, “definable.” According to Veatch, we can say what goodness is for a human being, and we can do this by understanding our natural end. Attaining our natural end is our ultimate good. Veatch thus challenged the very idea of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy,” which was (and is) the very core of what has been often called “analytic” ethics. Veatch’s later work, For An Ontology of Morals, explored these matters in even greater detail.

Nonetheless, the central issue in Rational Man is the claim that our nature as human beings can provide us with guidance regarding how we should conduct our lives. Veatch’s approach to this issue certainly belongs to the natural law ethical tradition, for he opposed both a desire-based and duty-based ethics. Then again, his approach is also markedly different in some respects from the natural law tradition or, at least, from how that tradition is often perceived. The most direct way to appreciate these differences and so locate Veatch in the natural law tradition is to consider what he had to say regarding these questions: “What is our human good?” and “How do we go about attaining it?”

Veatch’s answer to these questions relied on Aristotle. Our good is what Aristotle called eudaimonia. Though the traditional English translation of this term is “happiness,” Veatch often simply called it “living rationally or intelligently.” Later in his career, he used the term “human flourishing.” Whatever words used, what is important to grasp is that for Veatch the human good is not merely doing whatever one wants. Yet, Veatch’s answer also differed from Aristotle. Veatch took issue with Aristotle’s claim of chapters seven and eight of Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics that the human good consists precisely in a life of contemplation (theoria)—that is to say, in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake. Instead, Veatch chose to follow Aristotle’s claim of Book I. Our human good is “the practical life of man possessing reason.” It consists in our living in accordance with a “rational principle,” and “rational principle” is to be understood broadly as intelligence: intelligence that may be applied to art, craft, science, philosophy, politics, or any area of human endeavor. It includes capacities possessed by other animals, such as those for pleasure and health, and many other things as well. What our distinguishing characteristic, our capacity to reason and choose, does is to characterize the modality through which the development of these other faculties will be successful.

Veatch’s reason for diverging from Aristotle is significant and revealing.

The basis for our disagreement is simply our unshakeable conviction that living is not for the sake of knowing, but rather that it is toward intelligent living that all our powers and capacities are ultimately directed, including our powers of knowledge, and that it is the man himself who counts more than all his knowledge, no matter how great the latter may be.

Basic goods, like knowledge, are for the sake of the fulfillment of individual human beings; individuals are not for the sake of achieving basic goods. It is the perfection of the individual human being, not disembodied reasoning, that ultimately matters. Our true end or good consists, as Veatch emphasized, “in living intelligently.”

Accordingly, human flourishing is not, for Veatch, a single “dominant” activity that reduces all others activities to mere instrumental value. Instead, it is a way of living that is an “inclusive” activity. It encompasses such basic goods as knowledge, health, friendship, creativity, beauty, and pleasure. Attaining these goods is both productive and expressive of human flourishing. They are thus valuable not as mere means to human flourishing but as partial realizations of it. The entire process requires the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom (phronesis) and the development of rational dispositions or moral virtues.

Practical wisdom is the intellectual virtue for Veatch. It is not merely cleverness or means-end reasoning. Rather, it is the ability of the individual at the time of action to discern in particular and contingent circumstances what is morally required. Practical wisdom is the intelligent management of one’s life so that all the necessary goods are coherently achieved, maintained, and enjoyed in a manner that is appropriate for the individual human being.

Moral virtues are what form one’s moral character. They are concerned with the use and control of one’s emotions. Their aim, according to Veatch, is to help establish a harmony between what one ought to desire and what one in fact does desire. Such virtues as integrity, courage, temperance, and honesty thus assist the individual in using practical wisdom to make the proper choices. However, there is more to human flourishing than simply making proper choices. Human flourishing is the enactment of rational desire. Properly choosing something is not separate from desire. Practical wisdom and moral virtue must work together so that the individual human being acts with rational desire. This is to say, where one’s emotions and intellect are one. This is a way of being and matter of character. It occurs only when it can be said of a person interchangeably, “He is doing what he ought to do” or “He is doing what he wants to do.”

Veatch did not think that it was the task of practical wisdom to develop a priori universal rules that dictate either the proper balance (or weighting) of basic goods or the proper emotional response to a situation. The contingent, the particular, and the individual him- or herself are always relevant factors in determining the proper choice. What was clear for Veatch is that the ethical life requires that individuals know themselves, their situations, and discover the proper balance and emotional response for themselves. After all, Aristotle did speak of “the mean relative to us.”

Veatch’s emphasis on the individual also had another dimension. Human flourishing must be attained through a one’s own efforts and cannot be the result of factors that are beyond one’s control. Human flourishing is, as Veatch would remark in one of his later works, a “do-it-yourself job.” There is no such thing as self-perfection if the individual human being is not the agent. Indeed, practical wisdom does not function without personal effort or exertion on the part of the individual. There is nothing automatic about it.

This emphasis on the individual by Veatch placed him in conflict with both the utilitarian rule-based approach to ethics as well as the Kantian notion of “universalizability.” One cannot, for Veatch, attempt to develop ethical rules or principles that treat individuals as interchangeable, as if they did not morally matter. The individual does make a moral difference. Veatch’s approach to ethics in the 1960’s was in many ways already preparing the philosophical world for the criticisms of impersonalism that would come later in the twentieth century.

Veatch argued in Rational Man that an appeal to human nature provides us with knowledge of the basic goods of human flourishing, an awareness of the centrality of practical wisdom and moral virtue, and an appreciation of the importance of individual choice. Yet, such an appeal does not provide us with a recipe by which to guide our conduct. One cannot determine what one ought to do merely by appealing to an abstract understanding of human flourishing. Ethics is not an armchair art. Thus, Veatch’s version of Aristotelian ethics is fundamentally opposed to this sort of ethical rationalism.

In a lively and trenchant way Veatch sought to rehabilitate the natural law tradition by showing that ethical knowledge can be based on human nature without requiring the adoption of a one-size-fits-all approach to human conduct. Human flourishing is not something monistic or simple, and it is always the good for some individual or other. Interesting enough, Veatch allowed for different weightings of basic goods without supposing that human nature is irrelevant to ethical knowledge. He thus occupied the middle ground between John Finnis and the so-called “new natural law theorists” who thought ethics requires no ontological grounding and the more traditionally minded natural law theorists who seemingly thought that one could “read-off” the proper course of conduct from an analysis of human nature alone. Veatch was certainly an advocate of natural law ethics, but his understanding of it was subtle and nuanced.

In Rational Man Veatch met head-on those who sought to ground ethical knowledge simply in an appeal to desires or duty for duty-sake. The human good has to be more than doing merely what we feel like doing, and ethics must make some sort of difference as to how our lives are lived. If neither, then quite simply why bother ourselves with ethics? Despite their standing in academe, such approaches to ethics really have nothing to offer the ordinary man who is trying to find a worthwhile life or, at least, trying to not make a mess of his life.

Veatch also confronted those who believe that a justification for freedom and tolerance can be found by rejecting all moral standards. He noted that Mussolini’s fascism is as much a legitimate inference from the rejection of moral standards as any call for human liberty. He made clear the glaring non sequitur in all attempts to recommend a course of conduct from the premise that “no course of action is really superior to any other.” Indeed, he also noted that to the extent human beings choose one course of conduct as opposed to another they manifest a preference that is practically inconsistent with the rejection of all moral standards.

Though Rational Man was not written as a polemical response to William Barretts’ Irrational Man (1958), Veatch was concerned to show that human beings do have an alternative to being irrational and that they do not face a meaningless and absurd existence. Ultimately, Veatch argued that there is a sense and meaning to things, and the human mind can know it. Knowing this does not require that one be God-like or incapable of error. Yet, it does require openly and honestly facing oneself, and the world, and engaging in the examination Socrates recommended so long ago.

Douglas B. Rasmussen


[This is a very good book, and it is relatively inexpensive. Get the Liberty Fund edition. It is a marvelous introduction to both Veatch's thought and Aristotelian philosophy. I highly recommend it....reb]

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